Pothole problems at Daytona reflect poorly on NASCAR

By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 16, 2010

DAYTONA BEACH. FLA. -- The Daytona 500 represents NASCAR's most important sales opportunity of the year.

It's NASCAR's chance to convert the casual sports fan, who may not watch any other race all year, into a hard-core fan.

It's also a chance to prove stock-car racing is a major league sport worthy of corporate America's investment and national media attention.

And it's a chance for drivers to prove they're rare among professional athletes: ordinary men (and, increasingly, women) capable of doing extraordinary things.

Jamie McMurray closed his part of the deal Sunday, charging to the front with two laps to go and holding off the hard-charging Dale Earnhardt Jr. in a hair-raising, 190-mph scramble to win the 52nd Daytona 500.

But NASCAR defaulted on its obligation.

For all the insistence about being major league, NASCAR officials looked like rank amateurs in having to halt what's billed as the Great American Race twice -- for a total of 2 hours 25 minutes -- to patch a pothole in Daytona International Speedway.

And the delays put a major dent in TV ratings, which dropped more than 17 percent, according to Nielsen Media Research -- from a 9.2 rating/19 share (15.95 million viewers) for last year's rain-shortened Daytona 500 to 7.7/16 (13.3 million) for Sunday's interminable one.

With FOX broadcasters, TV viewers and an estimated crowd of 175,000 left in the dark about the scope of the problem, a crew of engineers tried patching the pothole with two compounds that failed. After trying a third, NASCAR restarted the race only to stop it again 36 laps later. The pounding of 43 3,400-pound stock cars had uprooted the patch and turned the pothole into a sinkhole twice its original size.

So NASCAR engineers scavenged vast quantities of Bondo from race teams in the garage -- Bondo is a sort of goop, mixed from polyester resin and a hardener, that's used to fill in dents and dings in battered racecars. It did the trick, holding up long enough for the race to be run to its conclusion more than six hours after it started.

On Monday, NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston said no decision had been reached about whether Daytona officials would be asked to repave the track's high-banked, 2 1/2 -mile asphalt surface -- a job estimated to cost $20 million.

Daytona hasn't been repaved since 1978. Among drivers, opinions differ about whether it's overdue. Earnhardt Jr. says it is; others say they like its bumpy, abrasive quality.

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